Meet Sue Mell and read more about her beautifully written novel, PROVENANCE (Madville Publishing 2021 Blue Moon Novel Award).
With subtle poignancy and humor, and a whole lot of music woven throughout the pages, it offers fresh takes on contemporary conflicts, exploring pivotal moments of sorrow, longing, and renewal in the lives of three deeply textured and indelible characters–a widower who has lost his wife; his sister, who’s recently separated from her husband; and his sister’s 11-year-old daughter, who opens the world up in unexpected ways.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your published book.
I grew up in Queens, New York, which is where I’m living again now, as the primary caregiver for my mom, who has mid-stage dementia. Provenance—my first and only novel so far—started out as a short story that grew into my grad school thesis, for the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson college. The final draft was written during a year-long fellowship with BookEnds, https://www.stonybrook.edu/southampton/mfa/bookends/ and the book went on to win Madville Publishing’s 2021 Blue Moon Novel Award. It was released in July of 2022.
Provenance is the story of DJ, a 57-year-old former bookstore manger whose disarming wit belies his lack of accomplishment. Still grieving his wife’s early death, he’s spent the last three years—and the money from her insurance policy—collecting guitars, composing music, and continuing to shop the Brooklyn stoop sales and flea markets they’d always enjoyed. When his building is sold, he takes refuge in his younger sister Connie’s half-finished basement, imagining a comfortable and solitary retreat in the small Hudson Valley town where they grew up. Instead, he finds himself caught up in her troubling divorce, drafted as caregiver for her 11-year-old daughter, Elise, and unable to afford the storage unit crammed with hundreds of vinyl records and every other scrap of his former life. DJ gifts his niece a marbled glass egg, a porkpie hat, and one of his prized guitars. But what’s asked of him is not to give the perfect object—it’s to give of himself.
Tell us about the genre you like to write, and how is it similar / different from other women fiction genres?
I write literary fiction (novel/short story/flash) and creative nonfiction (personal essays ranging from full length to micro). Generally speaking, I’d say that literary fiction places a greater emphasis on language and style than other genres. Like women’s fiction, it’s driven more by character than plot, and my work is always about the characters’ personal growth and reflection (or, in the case of nonfiction, my own). The protagonist of my novel happens to be a man, but Provenance is equally the story of the women—his sister and niece, the wife he mourns, and his closest friend—who predominate his life.
What are some of the biggest challenges authors of older protagonists face today?
The challenge for any book is always finding an audience, and reaching across boundaries of popularity and pre-conceived notions of taste. One agent I queried told me that the pandemic had turned him off to material with “this tone of loss.” In the end, the story of DJ, and his deepening relationships with his sister and young niece is an uplifting one, but the older we get, the more loss becomes a significant factor, if not a driving force, in our lives.
Given the ongoing popularity of chick lit, where do you see light-hearted fiction for older readers ten years from now?
I love that HenLit Central has made this call to arms for lighter-hearted fiction that reflects the realities of older reader’s lives—relevant stories that aren’t so dark as to keep us from ever falling asleep, if we’re reading before bed. Plenty of doom scrolling available for that! So I certainly hope, as time goes by, that there’s more and more room in the market for diverse, emotionally and psychologically rich, character-driven work. Books that reflect not only the sadness, disappointments, and unending challenges, but also the knowledge, victories, and potential for contentment that come with age.
When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?
For most of my life, I avoided becoming a writer. I’ve always been a creative person, but of all the possible options, writing struck me as both too solitary and way too hard. In college, I majored in ceramics and painting, got bit by the acting bug and pursued that for decade (with little to show), then returned to art and became a freelance illustrator, working for newspapers and magazines, and doing fabric design for kids clothing. I’d always been a big fan of short stories, and did take a writing class at the end of my twenties, with the takeaway that fiction was impossible to write! Years later, when my illustration work was dwindling, I wound up playing a small role in a band’s dark cabaret performance, which led to a brief foray into stand-up comedy, and later to my producing some independent pieces for radio. I loved writing the narration and short anecdotes for those pieces, and the pressure of coming up with new comic material led to a daily discipline of spending time at the page. But it wasn’t until 2007, when I was 50, that I started taking writing classes and trying to write fiction (again), and it was another couple years before I began submitting my work to literary journals. Even then, I tried not to think too hard about “being a writer,” but having some early success publishing short stories made it clear that was what I wanted to do. Hard? Sure. Most meaningful creative endeavors are. And since my life was pretty solitary already, I figured why not?
Do you have a day job other than being a writer?
Between 2007 and 2018, I either assisted or worked as a soft-goods stylist. That’s the person who plumps the pillows and turns back the comforter in an inviting way, who makes those rainbow-like stacks of sheets and towels look perfect for home decor websites and catalogs. But after my mom took a bone-breaking fall down the stairs of the house I grew up in, after I moved in and started taking care of her, those freelance jobs were no longer logistically or financially feasible. I do have an aide who looks after her, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 – 3:00, but caregiving is still essentially my full-time job.
What are some things that inspire you to write?
Loss, grief, and mortality are probably the strongest factors that motivate me to write. But I’m also very interested in the subtle emotional dynamics of family and romantic relationships, and humor is a vital and compelling force. Beauty in nature is right up there, too, as are music and art, along with the palpable quality of inanimate objects and the sentimental value they may carry. And, of course, reading a great novel or collection of stories.
What is your typical writing routine like?
For the majority of my writing life, I was the sort of person who rose early and went directly to the page: cup of green tea and my laptop in bed. Now, I still get up early, but I have to change my mom, and give her meds and eyedrops first thing. I aim to be at the page by 9:00, when her aide arrives, and then work till noon. It’s not always what happens, but it’s what I strive for, and—unless it’s strictly editing—three hours seems to be my maximum window of concentration. The other hours of aide-time are taken up with lunch, a short walk, submitting work—and all the other business of promoting a novel and being a writer.
What kind of message does your book convey to readers?
All the characters are pained by new or longstanding losses—which pretty much sounds like downer, right? But, ultimately, Provenance is about making emotional connections and moving forward toward a better place despite failure and loss. It’s a story of hope arising from ruin.
Does your book (s) incorporate certain aspects of your own life (and / or that of others)?
The characters of DJ and his wife, and the basic premise—her death, the loss of his Brooklyn apartment, and his hoarding tendencies—are based on people I once knew and loved. And the nagging melody of a piece of music DJ struggles to compose mirrors my own artistic ambitions.
Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
I always find this such a hard question! I’d have to say that my two favorite authors are Ann Beattie & Raymond Carver, whose work informed my early sensibilities. Even when I had no aspirations to do so, they made me wish that I could write. Because I’m currently interested in collage and linked or intersecting story forms, four books I love and have read multiple times are Joan Silber’s Improvement, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Alice Mattison’s In Case We’re Separated, and Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
Any advice you’d like to give for aspiring writers over 40?
Submit, submit, submit! Whether it’s agent queries, a novel excerpt, or a shorter piece for a literary magazine, do everything you can to get your work out there. Contests have provided a route to publication for me, for both fiction and nonfiction work. Entry fees can add up, but if you’re able to afford it, someone has to win, or at least long list—there’s no reason, if the work is good, that it can’t be you. And be sure to connect with other writers, whether it’s in person or online. (Facebook Binders are good places to start—there’s one for every facet of writing you can think of.) Community may be an overused word, but feedback and companionship are crucial on what’s a long, lone, and often arduous road. Writer friends who’ll be there not only to empathize with your rejections—there’ll be so many of those—but also to celebrate your eventual success.
Sue Mell is the author of PROVENANCE (July, 2022; Madville Publishing), which earned the Madville Publishing Blue Moon Novel Award. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson, and was a 2020 BookEnds fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. Her collection of micro essays, Giving Care, won the 2021 Chestnut Review Prose Chapbook Prize, and her story collection, A New Day, was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. PROVENANCE is her debut novel. You can visit her online at suemellwrites.com.
SYNOPSIS OF PROVENANCE (Winner of the Madville Publishing Blue Moon Novel Award)
Still grieving his wife’s early death, DJ has spent the last three years—and the money from her insurance policy—collecting guitars, composing music, and continuing to shop the Brooklyn stoop sales and flea markets they’d always enjoyed. When his building is sold, he takes refuge in his younger sister’s half-finished basement, imagining a comfortable and solitary retreat in the small Hudson Valley town where they grew up. Instead, he finds himself caught up in her troubling divorce, drafted as a caregiver for his 11-year-old niece, and unable to face or afford a storage unit crammed with hundreds of vinyl records and every other scrap of his former life. DJ gifts his niece a marbled glass egg, a porkpie hat, and one of his prized guitars. But what’s asked of him is not to give the perfect object — it’s to give of himself.